The Social Network (2010)

Though Charlie Wilson’s War marks the first time Aaron Sorkin mined a true story for dramatic purposes, it’s likely that we have The Social Network to thank for the shift to biopics becoming Sorkin’s modus operandi of late. Though Wilson did a more-than-passable job of telling a less-than-well-known story, Sorkin’s Network dips behind the scenes of something that pretty much everyone knows about. It’s more grand, more ambitious in that sense, despite the subject matter being a website as opposed to a global war, and it’s the same ambition that was found in Moneyball and hopefully will soon be found in the upcoming Steve Jobs.

Of course, the primary challenge with bringing biographical accounts to the big screen is accuracy — which, as we’ll return to in a moment, isn’t exactly the same thing as truth. It’s one thing if the subject of the film is still alive; it’s an entirely different thing if the subject of the film is still essentially “the same person”, with only a few measly years (and in this case a few measly millions of dollars) passed between the events of the film and the film itself. Think of Oliver Stone’s upcoming Snowden or last year’s woeful Julian Assange movie The Fifth Estate, both of which purport to reveal some kind of truth about a series of real-life occurrences that just so happen to still be occurring. Black Mass just opened in Boston to theaters full of people who are portrayed in the film. At this rate, we’re going to enter some weird Minority Report-type paradox where biopics start coming out before the people they’re about even accomplish anything worthy of a film.

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The Leftovers 1.6 – “Guest”

The first scene of “Guest” perfectly encapsulates the special kind of world we talked about in our review of the previous episode “Gladys“. Sure, the second scene steals the show: Nora leafs through a newspaper, makes an appointment with a prostitute advertised under the headline Nothing is Forbidden, invites the scantily-clad girl into her home, plants a pistol in her hand, dons a bulletproof vest, then demands the girl shoot her directly in the chest. Nora’s done this before, she assures the prostitute, although the last girl she got to shoot her “said she’d never do it again”. Thousands of dollars change hands, as do a great number of understandable health-related concerns. Tears fall. Eventually the gun goes off and Nora lurches backwards onto the blow-up air mattress. The hooker flees. After a long moment, Nora gasps a breath of fresh air.

Hell of a scene, no? Even if you aren’t sold on Nora’s self-help methods as a kind of New Grief — as if the old methods of grieving for lost loved ones no longer cut it — the intensity of the scene is still powerful. It builds moment by moment, starting as the prostitute steps over the threshold and holding an inhale as she darts back over it after the gunshot, finally exhaling at the same time Nora does. But a large part of the intensity of the scene might be attributed to the fact that this is the second scene of “Guest”, and the first is so deceptively twisted and unimaginably tragic that the gunshot scene almost becomes inevitable.

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Black Mass (2015)

Part of me viewed Black Mass as a critic. I took into consideration the actors, the script, the staging, pacing, etc. What about character arcs? What about historical accuracy? You know: the usual. I considered some of the things that usually pop up on the imaginary checklist (like how many trailer-worthy zingers will we endure?) and a few that were more specific to this film (like will Johnny Depp’s makeup look as bad as it did in the set photos?); I considered that I’d have to play the game where you try to compress and bury all of those checklistable points so that you can actually watch the movie. I considered Out of the Furnace, the last film by Black Mass director Scott Cooper, and the frustrating way in which that film tried and nearly succeeded in being an epic like The Deer Hunter. Somehow, one of Furnace‘s major flaws seemed to be that it was only almost that kind of movie, something that attempted an ambitious feat but failed to stick the landing.

But despite a sneaking suspicion regarding that last point Black Mass is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than Out of the Furnace or even Crazy Heart, Cooper’s first two films which both touted incredible performances but misplaced directorial style, and that’s probably because the other part of me viewed it as a Bostonian. The Globe‘s Ty Burr says it best in his review: “For worse and for worser, James “Whitey” Bulger is a son of Boston, and moviegoers here will react differently to Scott Cooper’s film than they will in Seattle, Dallas, or Dubuque.” That was inescapably true for last night’s Boston Common screening, wherein the feeling was that everyone in the theater was already familiar with what was unfolding up on the screen.

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Narcos – Season 1

Narcos has a rookie season that moves like a final season. Netflix has been in the TV game for a while now, with their flagships House of Cards and Orange is the New Black both entering fourth seasons soon, and it’s rare that a Netflix series falls wide of the mark — Bloodline, Daredevil, and Sense8 all drew in high-powered acting and directing talent and were almost immediately renewed for second seasons. Narcos, with the pacing and and urgency of a well-established series and character arcs that would normally be stretched over the course of a lesser show, might outdo them all.

A large part of what sets this story apart from the pack is the fact of this story being a true one. Pablo Escobar has been portrayed several times by all the people you might expect — there’s Benicio Del Toro just last year in Paradise Lost, Javier Bardem next year in a new biopic, and then John Leguizamo (okay, so maybe not who you’d expect) in yet another biopic the following year — but the infamous Colombian drug lord has never been viewed under a microscope like this. It’s Wagner Moura who steps into Escobar’s patterned polos here in Narcos, and he’s up to the considerable task.

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Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead doesn’t give a shit about your morals. He doesn’t really give a shit about anything, granted, and in true creature feature fashion the gory B-flick Pumpkinhead is more concerned with dreaming up gross ways for a pack of teenagers to bite it than with deriving any message out of the bloodshed. Oddly enough, though, there’s a distinct resistance to the crowdpleasing moments of heroism that usually typify late-’80s schlock-fests of this sort, which is evidence to the claim that somebody cared about something, which in this context is actually high praise.

Why, you ask, would the demonic Pumpkinhead be so prized within this ostensible Innocents vs. Monster tale? Why would we root for him instead of the terrified cabin-dwellers? Why would Pumpkinhead win? Simple: he’s Motherf*cking Pumpkinhead.

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Film & TV News: September 16

News

  • The Toronto International Film Festival continues to champion small, independent art-house efforts while the vast majority of us sit back and continue to pretend to care. Meanwhile, the King Kong and Godzilla franchises are merging.
  • In other festival news, the 53rd New York Film Festival kicks off in just over a week. Check out the teaser for the festival below, and be sure to check back in our Event Series archive for reviews of Miles Ahead, The Measure of a Man, a special screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and many more.
  • War of the Planet of the Apes has cast Woody Harrelson as the primary villain, which is much more exciting after you’ve seen Harrelson’s twisted turn in Out of the Furnace.
  • Oliver Stone’s Snowden has been pushed to 2016 because of a leak or something.

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Shame (2011)

It’s just a shame that this film wasn’t a bit better.  I’m not saying I hated or even disliked Shame, but it had the potential to be a great film that handles an issue that is rarely discussed and is entirely taboo.  One thing, for sure, that impressed me about Shame was the way that it made me actually feel the shame and remorse and immense self-loathing that Brandon experienced on an hourly basis.  That was powerful, and I mainly attribute that to the sheer talent of one of my favorite actors, Michael Fassbender.  In his second collaboration with the talented Steve McQueen, Fassbender is almost frightening.  When he attacks his visiting sister in nothing but a bath towel (one that is starting to fall down, at that) and begins screaming in her face, I genuinely felt like he might have lost his mind.  His rage, which clearly stems from his own unimaginably great disappointment in and repulsion of himself, is fairly constant and, while far less intense than that of his later performance as a plantation owner in McQueen’s follow-up film 12 Years A Slave, is shocking.

At the same time, Fassbender is also wise to portray Brandon thoroughly enjoying the acts that ultimately lead to his frustration.  This is vital to his performance because it is clear that the film is attempting to show that sex addiction is, in fact, an addiction.  It is an affliction, much like alcoholism or drug addiction.  Brandon is not a freak, he’s not a pervert…he is suffering.  But, as all addicts do, Brandon enjoys doing these acts while he is doing them.  Just because a cocaine addict might desperately want to stop using the drug, this doesn’t mean that he will suddenly no longer enjoy cocaine when he does use it.  In order to achieve the goal that this film is trying to accomplish, Fassbender needs to be as dead-on as possible.  He nails it.

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The Leftovers 1.5 – “Gladys”

To my mind, two things played a major role in spawning a resurgence in post-apocalyptic storytelling in the past decade. The first is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a bombshell of a novel from 2006 that depicted an ashen, desolate earth struggling to grasp the faintest glimmers of hope. It became a decent John Hillcoat film a few years later, but the craze spun off into more than just that: The Book of Eli, I Am Legend, Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, last year’s brilliant Snowpiercer, last year’s crappy Young Ones, that crappy now-cancelled NBC show Revolution, etc. etc. They’re not all directly borne of The Road, of course, but the genre itself certainly received a huge boost from McCarthy’s novel. That’s why the time was right to revisit Mad Max with Fury Road, and why the likes of Blade Runner is getting a new treatment as well. Heck, just this week there’s talk of Christopher Nolan being involved with the long-awaited Akira adaptation.

The second influential piece of post-apocalyptic storytelling is The Walking Dead, the massively popular AMC show that launched a thousand other zombie-related things and an official spinoff of its own (Fear the Walking Dead, which is pretty good if almost exactly what you’d expect). The thing that pushed TWD ahead of the pack was the format of a television series: movies and books are comparatively finite, but the long-term storytelling at hand in a TV series (or a comic book series, like the one TWD is based on) serves the genre in the perfect way. In both cases — Road and TWD — the aim was to create a new world out of the old one, to watch characters deal with the differences, to play witness to what fantastic and terrible things might arise after something alters life as we know it.

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Moonraker (1979)

Ah, Moonraker. Shall I compare thee to another Bond film? Thou art more absurd and more simplistic. Sometime too seriously does Bond brood, and often is his complexion covered in facepaint like in Octopussy. And every fair from fair sometime declines, by chance or waning box office returns on the Dalton Versions. But your eternal ridiculousness shall not fade, Moonraker, nor will your incorrigible fan service be overlooked, so long as men can breathe or eyes can see — so long lives this and this gives life to thee…or, well, not exactly life, per se, but at the very least a juvenile rundown of Bond henchmen.

Jaws bites stuff. It’s sort of his thing. He chomped his way through The Spy Who Loved Me and was meant to die at the end of that film, but apparently test audiences preferred an ending where Jaws survives to bite another day. That might not necessarily have meant that audiences wanted to see Jaws again in the very next Bond outing, but see him they did. Consistently. I mean really, he’s in like every scene simply because.

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The Thing (1982)

As stated in our review of The Fog, few directors have had their filmography subjected to as many pointless remakes as John Carpenter. The Thing might be the one that seems the most untouchable, the most sacred in its original form. Ironically, the 2011 Thing remake is probably the best Carpenter remake of them all. Still, the further one delves into the (re)making of the update, the more it just seems like doing Thing over again is a bad idea. Eric Newman, one of the producers on the 2011 film, had this to say about the development:

“I’d be the first to say no one should ever try to do Jaws again and I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone remake The Exorcist…we really felt the same way about The Thing. It’s a great film. But once we realized there was a new story to tell, with the same characters and the same world, but from a very different point of view, we took it as a challenge.”

No, this isn’t going to be a rant about originality (or lack thereof) or a rant about practical effects (or lack thereof) in modern filmmaking — if you were to blindly click anywhere else on your screen right now you’d probably hit one of those. If anything, much as our rundown on Carpenter’s Escape from New York attempted to define “infodump”, what we’re really concerned with here is how far the term “remake” really stretches.

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